Astronomy: now with more cursing

Most of us think of Science as a generally dignified enterprise. You plan your procedure meticulously, set up your instrument, conduct your experiment methodically and calmly, then write up the results. You don’t shout and curse as your precious telescope bangs into the truck that’s carrying it as you try to launch it into the sky. Right?

The above clip, from last Thursday’s episode of the Colbert Report, contains footage from BLAST, a documentary by filmmaker Paul Devlin. Devlin didn’t look far for the subject of his film–the story follows the daily life of his brother, Mark Devlin, the guest in the above clip. Which meant traveling to Arctic Sweden, Canadian polar-bear country, and, finally, Antarctica.

Based on where his work has taken him, you might guess that Mark is an explorer. In a way, he is.

He’s an experimental cosmologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and he’s trying to figure out what the universe looked like just after it was born. For that he needs old light, light that’s been traveling for over 10 billion years, carrying the signature of the universe’s infancy. The oldest light in the universe is called the cosmic microwave background. Emitted just a few hundred thousand years after the big bang, the CMB, (scientists love their acronyms) is a 3 kelvin microwave bath that’s nearly uniform throughout the entire universe, right down to 1 part in 100,000. But these tiny inconsistencies speak volumes about the early universe and our own origins.

Although this radiation has mostly cooled down to the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum, dust from early galaxies absorbed the
energetic ultraviolet and optical light of the brightest stars and re-radiated the thermal energy at infrared wavelengths. So Mark Devlin spearheaded BLAST, the instrument who shares its name with the documentary’s title, to study these infrared signals. BLAST stands for “Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope.” Submillimeter because it looks at photons with wavelengths between 250 and 500 micrometers, an order of magnitude shorter than a millimeter. Balloon borne because the team cradled the telescope in a large gondola and rigged it up to a NASA long-duration balloon, an ethereal-looking helium balloon that sailed it up 120,000 feet into the air – that’s about 4 times the altitude of Mount Everest’s peak. While still in the stratosphere, the telescope is above most of the atmosphere’s particles, meaning photons have a clear path to its detectors.

The team of physicists and grad students behind BLAST launched the telescope once in New Mexico for a test run, then again north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, again in Canada (according to the movie website, though I can’t find any information on it; apparently it was a failed flight), and then a final time, in Austral summer 2006, in Antarctica. I’ve linked here to the blog of one of the project’s graduate students, Don Wiebe, who documented each launch—and the life that went on between them— in photo blogs. (The photo below is from his blog) Graduate student Gaelen Marsden also kept a photo blog: here’s his day in the life of an Antarctican long-duration balloon scientist.

The movie has won several film festival awards but is on limited release, although it showed at last week’s general assembly of the International Astronomical Union. But the trailer looks spectacular. If anyone has seen it, I’d love to hear from you.

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